When President Obama visited Cairo and gave his landmark address to the Arab world, he spoke of the need to begin significant engagement with the Muslim-majority countries in the areas of technology and the knowledge economy.
Venture capitalist Alaya Bettaieb talked with KPCC's Patt Morrison at the 2010 Milken Global Conference about how investment and technology are the essential building blocks for economic development necessary to bridge cultures and strengthen bonds between the U.S. and the Arab world.
"One of the biggest issues the Arab world is facing is unemployment," said Bettaieb, who directs the Arab Academic Technology Transfer Project at the Arab Science & Technology Foundation. "I think if the countries will give importance to the economic development, extremists won't find room for development. These people rely on poverty."
Bettaieb said that Arabs' own fear of investing locally further deters outside investors from investing in the Middle East. According to Battaieb, the irony of it is that "Sharia law is extremely close to the venture capitalist spirit. ... You don't deal with interest. You handle all the risk. If you lose it, you lose it. That's it. But if you gain, you gain what you invest."
He said that there's a need for political stability before commerce and the economy can flourish. "Political stability is the first ingredient" to be able to get investors to invest in the region, according to Bettaieb. But in places like Tunisia, "you never hear about Tunisia, because it is a stable country."
"So many investors are putting their money in Europe and the U.S. They consider it to be a less risky region, but what's happening in Greece shows there is high risk." The Middle East also suffers a severe "brain drain," since many of the most qualified students leave for school in the U.S. or Europe and remain there afterwards. Bettaieb believes "upgrading technology is one of the most important first steps" so the Arab world can develop industry "to be able to absorb" its graduates coming out of Europe and the U.S.
Patt asked Bettaieb about the restricted role of women in some Arab countries, and he pushed back against the stereotype of oppressed, isolated women. "You cannot generalize for the entire Arab world. In North Africa, Tunisia, we have so many women business leaders. The trend is really growing and business-wise, the Saudi government is beginning to give women the chance."
For more with Alaya Bettaieb, visit the Patt Morrison page.